Excels in technical achievement, staging, and casting; in fact it will transport you to the glory days of the movie musical. Did the Academy Award-winning West Side Story (1961) need a 2021 update? That is the question at the forefront of many minds going into this update to the adaptation. And in terms of the visible mise-en-scene, Spielberg delivers an outstanding update to the original big screen adaptation. From the cinematography to the editing to the choreography, it certainly displays the soul of the original adaptation–all the way down to the film grain that gives it a classical aesthetic. But the full transformative potential of the timeless story suffocates under the theoretical identity politics of Spielberg’s Woke Side Story. While the plot and story remain largely unchanged, there is an attempt to integrate theoretical contemporary social politics, derived from applied postmodernism, into the motivations of the characters. Gone is the theme of mutually assured self-destruction through (in the case of West Side Story) gang violence, in exchange for themes rooted in
critical cynical theories that, counterintuitively, ultimately harm everyone on screen and in real life.
Love at first sight strikes when young Tony (Elgort) spots Maria (Zegler) at a high school dance in 1957 New York City. Their burgeoning romance helps to fuel the fire between the warring Jets and Sharks — two rival gangs vying for control of the streets.
While the original film has long-since been criticized negatively (and fairly so) for many of the casting choices and the use of brown face, Spielberg’s film rights the insensitivities of the past in his casting choices that are far more true to the original characters. Perhaps Ansel Elgort’s Tony isn’t particularly memorable, but audiences will be completely elated by Rachel Zegler’s Maria! Her voice and screen presence will capture your imagination! Furthermore, audiences will love seeing the great Rita Moreno (Anita from the 1961 version) on screen as the shoppe keeper and Tony’s mentor. And to top it all off, Moreno is given the honor of singing the titular song Somewhere.
Since the story and plot are largely unchanged, I won’t spend any time analyzing the bones of this iteration of Romeo and Juliet. Personally, I find West Side Story to be the best expression of Shakespeare’s greatest romantic tragedy. When the original stage (quickly turned film) production was released, it was a critique on gang violence and race relations at the time, and to a lesser extent, there was a critique on gentrification as well. And on the surface, that is still in the 2021 adaptation. But the power dynamic between the Jets and Sharks changed from the original. Whereas originally both groups were equal contributors to the gang violence, each despising the other; in this version, it is the Jets that receive the dominant share of the antagonism and prejudice, with the Sharks in a mostly defensive position.
In the mid-20th century, the problems with acceptance of others that deviated from the homogenous world in which one was reared were more organic and needed to be dealt with before mutually assured destruction befell everyone; however, the vast majority of the presently visible evidence of prejudice between groups is manufactured by activist scholars who seek to make everything about “race, gender, and identity–and why this harms everyone” (from Cynical Theories). This update of West Side Story was a golden opportunity to show the world that we aren’t that different from one another, and should work cooperatively in order to avoid violence and death due to perceived existential threats. Instead, this film has the opposite effect of continuing to point blame, theorize, and perpetuate “social diseases” (to quote the film).
This nuanced shift hinders the critique on racial/ethnic prejudice because it perpetuates the contrived cynical theory that white members of society are mostly to blame for the problems in the streets. Instead of the timeless story tackling the root of the problem, which is ultimately a heart issue in everyone, it places most of the blame on the Jets and everything they are shown to represent.
As you may have heard, the Spanish is not subtitled in this adaptation. And many have praised Spielberg for this decision; however, if you do not speak Spanish, you will be unable to fully understand some of the dialogue. Yes, there are context clues that will aid in deciphering what the characters are saying, but there are plenty of times that non-Spanish-speaking audiences will be unable to know what’s being said and how/why it’s important. In the press conference for this film, Spielberg said, “it was out of respect that we didn’t subtitle any of the Spanish. That language had to exist in equal proportions alongside the English with no help.” He goes on to cite that 19% of the US population reports being hispanic. Furthermore, screenwriter Tony Kushner added at the conference, “We’re a bilingual country,” and in reply Spielberg stated, “We sure are.” It doesn’t take a scholar to see through the virtue signaling to this decision being problematic for the film. (1) the US is not mostly bilingual (2) not everyone takes Spanish in high school or college (3) why would you want more than half the audience to not be able to understand dialogue in the film? (4) are we just going to stereotype and assume that the entirety of the hispanic population is fluent in Spanish??? and (5) it carries with it the notion that if you do not speak Spanish, you are the problem. Subtitling the Spanish would not have detracted by the film; on the contrary, it would have allowed for a greater use of the language by the Puerto Ricans in the film.
I want to end on some positive notes, because there is much to like about the aesthetic of the film. From the first scene to the last, the framing, lighting, and character blocking are outstanding! There is a beautiful classical dimension to this film. I absolutely loved the how every visible or audible element of the mise-en-scene looked! There is a magic the look and feel fo classical musicals that is seldom witnessed today. The last film to find this balance between naturalistic and staged blocking and choreography was La La Land. There are moments in this film that you will feel that you are watching the original, and it’s not simply because there are shot-for-shot sequences, but the lighting, angels, and film grain give 2021’s West Side Story dimension.
Rachel Zegler is the perfect Maria! I love everything about her performance. It’s strong, yet vulnerable, and she is stunning in the trademark white dress with red belt. The naturalism she brings to this character is outstanding. There isn’t one minute that goes by that you doubt she was born to play Maria. And her voice! Her voice is crystal clear and mesmerizing. It was also a real treat to get to see Rita Moreno return to West Wise Story 60 years later. While she may be in a different role (Valentina), she still commands the screen. Spielberg and Kushner deciding to give the titular song Somewhere to Valentina was the best decision in the whole film. It packed a power that it lacks in the placement in the stage and original film versions. While Elgort showed us that he can sing (when given the right song, which is not the case with his first number), but he is ultimately upstaged by Mike Faist who plays Riff.
Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.
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